Choosing a major — 6 tips for guiding your student

Choosing a major — 6 tips for guiding your student

Every parent wants their student to find their “calling” and click with a major that will help pave the way to a career. Students want that, too!

But the process of declaring a major can be scary as well as exhilarating. “Am I making the right choice?” they wonder anxiously. “Will I be able to find a job after graduation?” And then there is the classic question from well-meaning family and friends: “What are you going to do with that?”

For students whose majors are clear pathways to careers (think nursing, or accounting), the last question can be answered easily. However, for undecided students worried not only about choosing the “right” major but also about how their degree will prepare them for employment someday, the question can increase their self-doubt. And with self-doubt comes even more anxiety.

Luckily, there are stress-reducing ways to support and guide our students.

1. Relax.

Yes, relax. No need to make this experience more traumatic than it already is. Remember that it’s normal for the journey from major to career to twist and turn. Make an effort to keep things in perspective and you’ll be able to share this attitude with your student.

2. Have them reflect on their past to figure out their future.

One of the best strategies to use with college students is to encourage them to reflect on what they liked when they were younger, what they did in their spare time for fun, and what activities they participated in and why. Their past holds clues about the kinds of majors that might interest them. For example, someone who counseled their friends through difficult times may find themselves interested in psychology or social work. An athlete might gravitate to sports management…or sports medicine.

3. Encourage them to focus on what they want to learn, not what sounds good.

The best way to erase self-doubt is to find a subject they like and that will help them build transferrable skills. Ask what kinds of classes interest them the most and which classes challenge them to think and grow. Their answers should give them an idea of what they want to spend several years studying. A student who says they want to major in business “so my parents will leave me alone” is not a student who will be happy for long with their choice.

4. Suggest they compare degree plans.

Reading through the college’s course catalog is another way to narrow their choices. (The course catalog and degree requirements can be found on the school’s website.) If your student is choosing between economics and education, for example, they can check out the degree requirements (an internship? a foreign language?) to see which plan appeals to them more. Have them browse the course descriptions as well. They’ll spend a lot of time in their major courses and should be intrigued by the topics that await them in that department.

5. Remind them to speak regularly with an academic advisor and also a career counselor.

The academic advisor will help them navigate the process of completing a degree, and the career counselor can help them develop a plan to translate what they’re learning to workplace needs. Meeting with both throughout college can keep your student on track and help them make any needed adjustments along the way.

6. Suggest they interview recent college graduates.

Some of the best advice about college majors comes from recent graduates. New graduates are likely to tell your student that in general the skills they acquired in college (e.g., critical thinking, written communication, appreciation for diversity) are more important than the content knowledge they gained from their major. At the very least, their advice may lower the pressure to make a “right choice.”

What about double majors?

Double majoring, or earning degrees in two disciplines, is impressive. Double majors and minors (which take fewer classes to complete than a major) offer an opportunity to delve deep into more than one discipline, which may be helpful to a student after graduation. For example, a double major in biology and philosophy could be very useful for someone who wants to work in biomedical ethics.

But is adding another major or minoring in a complementary discipline necessary? Is it even practical?

Double majors — and some minors — may increase the time it takes to graduate and increase the cost of the degree. They can also be complicated to manage, depending on how different the focus of study is to your student’s original major.

Here is advice for how your student can make the best choices for double majoring and minoring:
  • Work with an academic advisor to review the degree plans for the major or minor. Ask how long it will take and what each semester will be like as you complete the requirements.
  • Consider the additional time and expense of adding another major or a minor. Determine if you can afford the time and costs or if you’ll need to make arrangements to afford a double major or minor.
  • Review motivation for adding another major or a minor. Are you adding a major or a minor because you’re interested in the course work or because you think it will help you qualify for a job or a spot in a graduate program?

Depending on your student’s long-term plans, a double major or a minor will most likely not enhance their job or graduate school prospects unless they can demonstrate the value of the additional course work.

What if my student wants to change their major?

Students change majors for a variety of reasons and it’s perfectly normal. But it can still be worrisome to parents, who wonder if their student will be able to graduate on time.

In addition to discussing what led them to this new direction (was it a single fabulous course or professor? a new career goal?), here are a few questions you can ask to help your student make the best decision:

  • How many additional courses do you need to take? The earlier the change is made, the less likely your student will need to take lots of additional courses.
  • Will you need to take more credit hours per term or take summer classes to stay on track? In some cases, an additional course per term or a couple of classes during the summer may be all that’s needed to graduate in four years.
  • What other requirements does the new degree plan include? Some degree plans require internships or practicums that must be taken into consideration. As always when working toward a degree, your student should consult with an academic advisor to ensure they are completing required courses in the right sequence.

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Amy Baldwin, Ed.D.

Amy Baldwin is the Director of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas and co-author, with Brian Tietje, of A High School Parent’s Guide to College Success: 12 Essentials. She is also the co-author of The College Experience, The Community College Experience, and The College Experience Compact, all published by Pearson Education. Amy and her husband are parents of a college sophomore and a high school junior.

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